Our Olympics

16 August 2012

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The flame may have extinguished (with due respect to the Paralympics), but the effects on our national conscience and pride should live on for some time. I want to reflect on my experience of London 2012 – our Olympics.

From before 6 July 2005 when London was awarded the games, I was firmly in the camp of the cynics. I didn’t want the cost and disruption and, if it went wrong, the embarrassment of a festival of vanity for politicians for the benefit of a few sports men and women and sponsors.

I’m old enough to remember Mexico ’68 held in police state conditions, controversially overshadowed by civil rights protests. The “friendly games” of Munich ’72 were shattered by terrorism. The city of Montreal spent decades paying off the debt of the 1976 games with its half finished stadium. Boycotts ruined Moscow ’80 and Los Angeles ’84 (though the latter proved two things: the Olympics can run at a profit and soccer can succeed in the US). Athens, so desperate to get the Millennium games (which it didn’t get) spent too much on lavish, mostly once-used, facilities for 2004 that have had hardly helped its economy.

Not a great history. Then, 7/7 showed our vulnerabilities.

I wasn’t much of a fan of Seb Coe – Ovett was more likeable and Coe was rubbish as an MP. As a Parliamentary Private Secretary (bag carrier) he had a reputation as being useful for running out to the get the coffee. How on earth could he pull it off?

But, I love sport and as much as I would have gladly travelled to Paris to see the games and laugh at the cost to France, I wanted to be at London 2012. I nearly wasn’t and I was quick to have a moan at the unfair ticketing process. Come May I spent a couple of hours desperately fighting the Locog website to get two tickets for anything. To my surprise, in the second chance for lottery losers, athletics went on sale early. For the only time this year I used my Visa credit card. Only afterwards did I think about how I would pay off the debt.

Tickets: £590

Hotel: £66

Petrol: £60

Train: £16

Food and drink: £38

Programme: £5

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Obligatory “I was there” t-shirts: £16

Preamble done, I’ve decided to cover five aspects – my five, multi-coloured circles (geddit?) – of my day at Stratford and the whole Olympic experience from Beckham with the flame to the Who.


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I’ll try to steer clear of the People’s Olympics cliche, but perhaps more than anything the Olympics said a lot about Britons and our love with events and celebration. The monarchy is not for me, but I recognise that the Jubilee was a great event that most of the population embraced. In tough times, people decided it was a good chance to celebrate and feel good about themselves as individuals and as a nation.

We can be as patriotic as any other nation. I don’t think we’re as reticent and reserved as we might think.

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The overriding memory of Stratford and the torch relay before was of people. There were over 100,000 in the park on the day we went. Everyone seemed to be having an absolutely marvellous time. it was like being in a theme park without the rides and the cartoon characters. The volunteers played such a vital role in keeping people entertained, even when they had to keep us penned as we waited for the train at the end of the day.

The torch relay was a staggering success. We had it in north Devon early on. the crowds were phenomenal. All to see sight of someone they didn’t know, often from outside the area and for only a minute or so.

Seeing a chap in Braunton struggle out of his wheelchair to carry the torch a few steps brought a lump to many a throat.

And, we cheered, every step of the way from Land’s End to John O’Groats.

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We cheered too in the stadium with fans from around the world. We cheered every athlete. Yes, bigger cheers for Brits, but big cheers for the Americans, Jamaicans and Russians.


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I used to live next door to the Olympic park, in the flats that housed the surface to air missiles. As the sculpture in the park says, it used to be the site of the largest refrigerator mountain in Europe. It was gritty. In estate agent speak it was not even “up and coming”.

Yes, businesses and a small community were forceably moved out of the site. That’s sad in a mature democracy.

I have no answer to that. Except to say that what has been built in Stratford is a collection of stunning sports venues. The stadium iteslf is beautifully simple: functional, but not oppressive with fantastic sightlines.

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I love the “Pringle” and we were so disappointed not to get cycling tickets. I hope that the building gets used every day of every year until memories of 2012 are dim and distant. I hope too that Herne Hill velodrome keeps its place in South London and produces another Bradley Wiggins.


St Pancras to Stratford in 10 minutes. Wow!

When it became apparent that CrossRail would not be ready for 2012, there were many like me who thought that was another nail in the transport coffin. From our one day experience it’s hard to make a judgement. I’m sure if I was still living in London I would have grumbled about station closures, Olympic lanes and crowds.

On the day, everything worked. And, worked well. We were left thinking that London had never worked so well.

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That said, I am still not convinced that the ticketing succeeded. There was a whole bank of empty seats at the stadium on our day. There continued to be swathes of spectator-less plastic across most venues.


We were disappointed that we didn’t see a British success on our day in the park. But, the cheers echoed around the park as Britain took bronze in the women’s hockey.

So much sport and, at home, we loved every minute. Even the weightlifting, archery, handball and water polo. Red button coverage without commentary: nirvana!

We also cried as Mo Farah won his second gold.

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But, in the park, we saw the US women’s 4×100 team break the world record. We saw a thrilling pole vault competition. We witnessed the Bahamas first ever gold medal.


My £700 odd pales into insignificance against the £9 billion or whatever the figure is. As I’ve said before, sporting events, stadia and the like generate minor additional economic activity over short periods. Justifying the cost in economic terms is a pointless exercise.

The sponsors didn’t quite kill the Olympic spirit. Their presence in the park and in the media has been irritating, but I’m sure I’ll forget who they are fairly soon. (I’ve already mistakenly identified the official logistics partner.)

There is certainly no way can I justify what I spent other than the fact that it was one of the most enjoyable experiences of my 54 years.

I purposely avoided using the L-word as one of my five aspects. There is no escaping that legacy was the cornerstone of the bid. And, it will probably return as a point of argument in years to come such as when the stadium is half demolished or Newham locals complain about the lack of jobs or services.

From my perspective now, I can see legacy.

There is, hopefully and with a political will, a sporting legacy. Heck, I’m thinking of taking up archery! If Twitter is anything to go by, no one wants the football season to start because footballers are greedy cheats. Er, football is an Olympic sport; the women’s tournament was fantastic and threw up great British role models.

There is additional infrastructure in place (with CrossRail to come) that improves London.

East London has had an economic boost: with continued investment that could continue (but that’s a big austerity-driven political question).

That leaves the effect on us. I think as a nation we’ve surprised ourselves. Everyone seemed happy for two weeks. We found out we could pull off a huge project. We realised that we’re pretty good at sports across the Olympic range.

We did it!

I’m now thinking ahead to Glasgow 2014…and volunteering…


Playing shops – an update

3 May 2012

Much of my “spare” time, a dozen days off and (look away, boss) countless hours at work have been devoted to starting a community enterprise, a community owned and operated village shop operating within our local Methodist Church.

To get to where we are, I’ve turned my hand to cash flow forecasts, radio interviews, lobbying, writing grant bids, costing EPOS systems, cajoling villagers, negotiating with church bureaucracy, learning bookkeeping and Sage accounts, fund raising, fleeing farm dogs and other hazards.

There’s been frustration and elation in equal measure. At the end of March, I let out a loud whoop as we got the fantastic news of a grant offer from Village SOS, a Big Lottery Fund. That seems so long ago as we face challenges on a daily basis.

It’s nice then to get the odd day away from the village. What better way to spend it: a day of “retail therapy” at Dillington Hall, Somerset with the Plunkett Foundation. Do shopkeepers have busman’s holidays?

Like most of the other conferences I go to, the day was as much about networking as it was about learning new things. But, I did learn much about the thought process of turning people into profits. I know that sounds a bit calculating. But, what we’re trying to create is not only a community resources; it is an enterprise. For all the fluffy, middle-class-ishness of the project, the volunteerism and grant-aid, our venture has to turn a profit. Our neighbours are our customers. (They are also our owners as this is a true community owned project.)

This is serious business. Collectively, we have to act responsibly on behalf of the community. It hasn’t happened yet, but I’m sure I will at one stage have to don a suit to pitch our case for that last bit of funding.

Plunkett, as I think I’ve said in a previous post, is at the forefront of the community shop movement. There are nearly 300 such ventures up and running in the UK, where a commercial shop has succumbed to rural decline, the Post Office’s slash-and-burn strategy, shopkeeper retirement and/or the power of out-of-town big boxes. Who in their right mind would want to work 24/7 over a village shop with squeezed income? Without such devoted business people, it’s left to communities to fend for themselves.

Last Friday was another great opportunity to meet many others who’ve trod the path, opened shops and successfully kept them running. My notebook is stuffed with advice and contacts. My colleague also picked up a list of local suppliers from another shop.

We’ve still got much to do: raise more funds, get our lease in place, recruit a part-time paid manager and volunteers and umpteen boring tasks.

It’s daunting, exciting. I’d like my life back, but I’m sure I’d do this all over again.

I hope you can make a trip to North Devon sometime to buy locally produced cakes, cheese from the next village, the best strawberries in the world or greeting cards from our village photographer.



Only a game: ballbearings and pucks

19 April 2012

Beyond Subbuteo, my brother and I waded through a number of action sports games through the 70s.

Beyond Subbuteo, it was American sports that dominated. However, I do remember picking up an all action cricket game on a trip back to Blighty (probably 1976).

All action…

Bowling consisted of rolling a ball bearing down a plastic ramp. The ramp was adjustable to vary the speed of delivery. In practice: slow, slower and not reaching the batting crease. Theoretically, you could bowl spin by flicking the ramp sideways as the ball hurtled down. Well. In theory.

At the other end of the wicket, your batting opponent was in control of a spring loaded bat device. Nine times out of ten, you would hit the ground, your fingers or the wickets instead of the ball.

The stumps and bails were so fiddly that any slight vibration shattered the wickets. Fielder sat on cardboard bases. If you were fortunate enough to hit the ball and unfortunate to hit the ball toward the fielder, the ball bearing would send him flying.

All action, little game play, not a triumph. It went quickly back in the box and remained at the back of the cupboard until a clear our many years later.

The Carl Yastrzemski baseball game was not only all action, but my brother and I must have played a hundred or so games over a couple of summer weeks in stifling Long Island heat. “Yaz” was star of the Boston Red Sox, perennial bridesmaids in the late 60s and 70s. He was from Long Island, but I bought the game at a toy warehouse because it was cheap and promised a lifelike recreation of baseball.

Well, if lifelike baseball consisted of an endless stream of home runs (this was before the steroid fed home fest of the late 90s), then it was lifelike.

The field was metal with a wooden surround, about the size of an old kids’ bagatelle. There was a wire loop on the “pitching mound” that you used to flick to pitch. You could actually curve the ball, but it had little effect as batting was ridiculously easy. The bat, like the cricket game, was spring loaded. Unlike the white flannel facsimile, it was on one plane. Hit the ball and 90% of the time it would leave the field: home run.

We wound up building a wall made of Lego around the field to keep the ball in play. If it stayed in play the ball would eventually roll into indentations which resulted in something other than a homer: hit or out.

Like real baseball you could strike out: three swings and misses (almost impossible) or leaving a pitch and it hitting a bell that served as the “umpire”.

Great fun, awesome game play, nothing like the real thing.

Table Hockey

In contrast, table hockey was like having front row seats at Madison Square Garden, which you might have heard of, home the New York Rangers. I’d prefer the Nassau Coliseum, which you haven’t heard of, but was home of our beloved New York Islanders, hapless, hopeless and loveable.

This was table hockey, not air hockey which is an abomination.

There were several brands of table hockey, but they all had the same principles. The “ice” was a treated bit of board with a shiny side or metal. Most versions came with proper “dasher boards” and “glass” that enclosed the ice.

Players moved up and down the ice in grooves routed out of the board. You used metal rods to control the players, pushing or pulling to move forward or back. Spinning the rods allowed you to shoot, pass or “check” (the hockey equivalent of tackling).

In the table version, there were no complicated rules like penalties or offside. You just dropped the puck and played until one team scored 10 or you got bored.

By the time I got my game, my brother was probably off at uni so I played against my friend Fred, now an eminent seiemologist. Fred had the traditional game with two dimensional players. Mine had 3-D men, Subbuteo figures bulked up to the extreme.

Fred always easily beat me, but he hated my version of the game especially as my players had a habit of falling off their spindles at crucial moments. I loved my game as it had an overhead scoreboard unit which doubled as the face-off device. Drop the puck in the top and it would bounce through grooves, giving you that lifelike delayed action faceoff.

Like most of the action games, hockey had a brief but intense appeal before something piqued my interest.

Games base on dice, cards, spinners; odds, simulation. these games had a more enduring appeal. They still do. But, occasionally, I’d love to hear the noise of the puck dropping or feel the pain of thumping my fingers with Yaz’s springloaded bat.



Photo by K-Free, used under a Creative Commons Licence

Only a game: “Flick to kick”

12 April 2012

I’ve spent untold hours in a fantasy world where I was Jimmy Greaves, Brian Clough, Casey Stengel, Branch Rickey, Geoff Boycott and Bobby Hull all rolled into one.

Sports gaming. A bit of a nerdy anorak wearing hobby, I’m happy to admit. Sometimes compulsive, but I didn’t quite get to this bad.

The other day I happened to be wandering through one of Barnstaple’s great little shops – Youings. It’s sweet shop, tobacconist, model shop and toy shop all under one venerable roof on what I imagine was once a prestigious spot at the entrance to the High Street.

Youings often throws up an odd little treat whether it be itching powder, Lindt chocolate bunnies, bizarre nicotine based novelties or cheap train sets. It’s not that I’m there to buy, but it’s a nice antidote to the bland chain stores taking over the centre of town.

There, tucked away in the corner I saw them. It’s getting on for 50 years since my first set, but the bright green oblong boxes were a dead give away. Inside, eleven painted figures, ten of which in all red, one of contrast. Liverpool FC. Reduced to less than three inches per player.

Scanned Photo - subbuteo Lad - Ken?

I thought Subbuteo had disappeared several years ago under the combined weight of video games, other high tech gadgets and purchase by an unfeeling, uncaring, bottom-line driven multinational toy conglomerate. I also vaguely remember an awful attempt to recreate the game in digital format which wasted loads of money. No “flick to kick”? Then, no Subbuteo. And. Subbuteo was no toy. It was a hobby. It was life.

It seems, also, that it’s back.

For the uninitiated, Subbuteo was the premier table football game that dominated in the late 60s and through the 70s. Its origins involved a pitch drawn in chalk on surplus army blankets with cardboard men mounted on buttons. That was in immediate post war Britain. Its inventor, PA Adolph, brought out the familiar moulded plastic players with weighted bases in the early 60s. Revolutionising the game and bringing mass appeal for boys up and down the country and across Europe.

For my seventh birthday I was expecting something other than Subbuteo. In fact, I can’t even remember what I desired so much. Seeing the figures laid out on green baize with floodlights and plastic fencing that birthday morning had the opposite effect my poor dad thought it would. I was disappointed. I’m sure, however, after a few games that evening I was hooked.

Already a football nut, dad assumed I’d love to recreate the game on the living room carpet. I’m sure he was eventually pleased as he’d stumped up for the top of the range floodlit set. Over successive birthdays and Christmases, I acquired a dozen or so different teams, multi coloured balls, a chute for taking corners, new fangled goals, TV tower with miniature Kenneth Wolstenholme and all sorts of other wallet relieving accessories.

(Subbuteo balls came in different sizes, but almost always were the scale equivalent of 4 or 5 feet in diameter!)

Matches in my house were big events, especially under the lights driven by 9 volt batteries that had a nasty habit of leaking probably poisonous goo. Dad, my brother and I (only once my sister, who had the temerity to beat me 1-0) played regularly, formed a league and had cup matches.

Sometimes (a lot of times) my temper got the better of me and players were sent into the scaled down version of orbit. Players were inadvertently crushed or lost arms. Hospital treatment involved that lovely smelling model aeroplane glue. In later years, as I mellowed, I even painted players hair and faces to give them more character.

Of course, I grew out of Subbuteo probably for the lack of playing partners as my brother got older and spare time with dad disappeared. We did have a brief fling with Subbuteo cricket. Each ball was either 4, 6 or out. It passed a couple of months one summer only to be consigned to the loft along with West Brom, Wolves (in old gold) and the Spurs.

Subbuteo, of course, now has professional players, leagues and world championships.

I moved on to other sports games. From flick to kick to roll the dice; from the beautiful game to the nation’s pastime. That’s another story.


Photo by TempusVolat, used under a Creative Commons Licence.


Mirabelle: love unrequited

5 April 2012

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By now, I should have a dozen or so thin green stems sitting in the spare room waiting for the spring warmth to return and so to make new homes in 10 inch pots in the freshly cleaned greenhouse.

Alas. Mirabelle Blanche, my new internet seed love match, has stood me up.

I’m left with a hotchpotch of old seeds some faithfully fecund others, whilst not entirely panda-like, just a bit more coy and fickle.

Last week’s delivery from Tamar Organics was a proverbial mixed bag. A new lot of red clover sprouting seeds and Mirabelle’s Dear John letter. (BTW, if you like sprouting seeds, do try red clover. Fantastically crisp with a hint of spiciness.)

In response, I resorted to the tomato family’s answer to cockroaches (they could survive a nuclear holocaust) in Gardeners’ Delight and Moneymaker. Despite being well passed their best before date, I’m confident of at least a 50% strike rate. Given that I’ve sown a dozen or so of each, if you need any plants in 4 weeks time, I might have a few spare.

I’ve also emptied my store of slightly more exotic seeds. There’s Golden Queen – a tasty yellow oval – and Zuckertraube – sweet little fruits. The former produced a couple of plants last year but were hardly big croppers. The latter went all moody and died, not favouring for my erratic watering regime. Wimps.

To date, there’s been a bit of life from the Golden Queen and not much more. The plants got a good shot of spring sunshine last weekend, but since then have had to cope with cold blast from across the Bristol Channel.

Oh Mirabelle, you tease. I’m yearning for a tomato that tastes of something. No more over chilled, watery lumps from Spain thank you. Maybe this is the answer.

Next up, finding a space to protect cucumbers from July’s inevitable Atlantic gales.




22 March 2012

Once upon a time this was a blog about a transplanted townie tending an allotment. Not quite the “good life” (whatever that is), but the odd belthering about weeds, polytunnels and broccoli.

All of a sudden, the calendar said 21 March. Vernal equinox. Or, as we know it in the northern hemisphere, spring.

And, allotment 5 1/2 is looking a sorry state.

That’s a poor show considering it’s been a mild and dry winter, suitable for clearing weeds and putting goodness back in the soil. There’s been too many distractions. Community life aside, Jeff Stelling, the Saturday Soccer crew and a comfy sofa have proved too much, too easy.

There’s no promise that I’ll get out this weekend. Rarely, the southwest forecast is the best of the regions: dry, bright and 16 C. But, there’s some stirrings in the loins.

In a week filled otherwise with telephone calls, meetings, internet searches, re-writing business plans and share offers (and this was supposedly a holiday), I did fit in a little bit of yard work (I love that phrase) before returning to the day job on Monday.

The raised bed has been cleared and primed with cat deterrent. I’ve even got some baby greens thriving under a cloche, a remnant of autumn planting. I spent a couple of back breaking days pulling weeds, hacking down redundant shrubs and stumps of trees that should never have been planted. The garden waste bin overflowed with green detritus.

Meanwhile, up at the allotment, my Brussels have finished. Three types of garlic have wintered well. There’s but a few stunted bulbs. So, if I can avoid rot, we should have a good crop come June.

The spring cabbages are looking slightly sorry for themselves. All bar one should perk up. But, that renegade has bolted, sprouted a seed head. I’ve never seen a cabbage do that. My thinking is it’s a function of the dry, mild weather.

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Next door to the cabbages, I have or had a good bed of broad beans that I planted out in early October.

Look at them now. Those that I covered under a netted cloche are straggly, but alive. In contrast, those left to the elements have expired.

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Check out Mr F's forearms - wow! It's Popeye!

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Always read the instructions - yeah, right.

So, off to our local budget garden centre last week to fill a big shopping trolley. With a small packet of discount seeds. And, three large bags of peat-free compost. And, cat repellent. Naturally slug repellent too. All organic, mind you.

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The toilet roll method

Using the expired toilet roll method, I’ve started off another batch of broad beans, which hungry mice permitting should be ready to plant out by the end of April.

The rationale for autumn planting of broad beans is to avoid black fly which can devastate your crop. Late planting means you run the risk though by pinching out the tops once the fruits start to form also discourages the flies.

But, in three years of trying I’ve now lost well over 50% of my crops. Conclusion, next season I’ll start off beans under cover in January for March planting out.

For many gardeners in my division (Conference South) broad beans are one of the first crops to be ready, a bit of a treat in April or May.

The beans are quite versatile. You can eat them as young ‘uns, in their skins and quite sweet. As a mature bean, pop off the skin after a quick blanch: great in a salad with spring onions, kidney beans, couscous, lemon and oil. As old boots, add broad beans to casseroles and soups.

From indifference, I’ve become a great fan.

For the weekend, the lazy to do list consists of tomato seed sowing. The active, active, not sitting in front of screen list includes additional digging, weeding and shooting the breeze with fellow allotment growers.

Ctrl+F5.5=Allotment 5 1/2 refreshing.

Wind turbines for dummies*

15 March 2012

“How I learned to stop worrying and love the sustainable energy”

This is likely to a bit of a ramble and possibly go off topic.

Last night our parish council had to consider separate planning applications for wind turbine and two solar panel installations. In addition, there was a presentation from a company that is offering to erect a wind turbine on parish land in return for rent and a share of power generation income.

Many rural areas, especially around north Devon are seeing an explosion of sustainable energy developments. The conditions are ripe. We’re in an area designated under the old structural plan, or whatever it called itself, as wind energy “ground zero”. The prevailing wind whips off the Atlantic and believe me it blows 12 months of the year. (Although this is the most lamb like March since we moved down here.)

There’s also a good supply of farmers looking to improve the yield of their acreage. North Devon still bears the scars of foot and mouth. Many farmers have diversified. It’s said that the population of our parish increases by about 50% in summer months what with second homes and holiday accommodation on former farms.

Would you begrudge a struggling farmer being charmed by the turbine salesman? It’s more or less free money.

Anyway, the point I’m going to get to in a minute – I said I’d go off topic – is that our parish council is poorly equipped to make a sensible decision on wind or solar energy proposals.

Let me deconstruct that last statement. The parish council has some wise heads. It has the knowledge of the community and the land. Individual members do their best to represent the ordinary folk. But, they are not acoustic engineers.

Last night, councillors were asked to decide whether several sheets of out of context numbers and graphs should persuade them to change their minds. All of this in the context of a heated meeting that had already lasted two hours.

Their statutory planning role is as an advisory role. Planning authorities – in our case the district – make the planning decisions. The district is under no obligation to agree the advice of parishes, but in practice it will have regard especially on such contentious issues.

The council has little in the way of guidance. Our district council has produced a wind energy policy document. But, that policy has to be set against national guidelines and energy policies.

Perhaps more problematic, the parish council – like the district planners – has to consider each application on its merits without any overriding plan. The current “plan” paints a blob on a map and says insert x number of kW generation around here. It could all be on the same site or scattered around the farms of the culm and combe.

In practice, supporting or not supporting (remember, approval rests with the district) is subject to precedent but not without a long winded, unstructured, emotive debate.

What our collection of teacher, car mechanic, farmers, retired union official and so on need is impartial, informed, expert advice and guidance.

Fat chance.

There’s three classes of people: those vehemently supportive of wind turbines, possibly because of pecuniary interest; those vehemently against; and, those who leave their lights on all night.

Wind turbine public meetings usually descend into fractious, rather pointless chaos. Of course, most who turn up are against. Organise any public meeting about a contentious issue and you’ll usually get 90% antis.

There’s too much anti-science, cherry picking of factoids and plain nonsense littering the debate.

Last night we were treated to the “health issues linked to wind turbines” statement. Really? Which peer reviewed study would that be?

It’s very much like the mobile phones cause cancer argument. Intuitively there must be some cause:effect from this nasty technology. But, er, the evidence is inconclusive. I’m surprised that we’ve not yet seen a “wind turbines cause cancer” Daily Mail headline.

On the other hand, the wind turbine company kept talking about “green energy” as though turbines are completely benign. If you say it often, I guess it becomes fact. Ignore: road miles to get the equipment on site from a distant manufacturing plant, concrete plinth (very eco-unfriendly), visual intrusion, noise, flicker and all the other collateral effects.

I try approach this subject as a technocrat. Any decision needs to be made on the facts of the case, evidence based and set in public policy terms. Any decision must weigh the pros and cons for all sides. Unfortunately, that usually means that the application should be supported.

The only fact is that wind turbines – both on and off shore – are here (next week, there, and next month, everywhere) for the forseeable future. This may or may not have anything to do with the “facts” or “evidence” in each individual case.

We’ve got a short to medium term energy crisis driven by inertia, climate change and a failing planning system.

We’re stuck with wind and a lot of hot air: pity the poor parish councillor.


* – I’m not implying parish councillors are “dummies”!